Lifelong learning today is not only a people’s right but also a necessity that can help them to keep or change jobs, earn more, find and critically evaluate publicly shared information, communicate or help others. However, Lithuania has not reached the 2008 Lifelong Learning Strategy’s goal to increase the adult lifelong learning rate to 15%. According to Eurostat data, in 2019, only 7% of adults (25-64 years) in Lithuania participated in learning. In ten years, the rate has increased by just 2.4 percentage points, while in Estonia, the rate of adult learners has doubled from 10.5 to 20.2% over this period.
To find out why the development of non-formal adult education in Lithuania is stalling, the National Network of Education NGOs together with the Lithuanian Association of Adult Education conducted a qualitative study on how non-formal adult education is implemented in the country’s regions: what people’s learning needs are and how they are met, what programs are offered and how their quality is ensured. During the research, focus groups were organized with Lithuanian non-formal adult education coordinators from different municipalities.
The study revealed that the coordinators of non-formal adult education (NFAE) in the country’s regions recognize the implementation process as complex, dependant on the context and factors in the municipality and/or community. For coordinators, the NFAE implementation is perceived as the planning and organization of adult learning activities, information dissemination, monitoring and evaluation, and quality assurance. The execution of the activities mentioned above faces difficulties due to divergent understanding of NFAE concepts, as politicians, municipal representatives and coordinators, various population groups and learning participants rely on different attitudes and perceptions. Politicians tend to associate NFAE implementation with vocational education, i.e., improvement of professional competencies. While focus group participants (regional NFAE coordinators) perceive them as educational and occupational activities for population groups arising from community initiatives, and residents see them as unclear and non-priority services. Coordinators recognize NFAE as a chaotic phenomenon that seems to change by itself as population’s generations change along with their needs, interests and implementation possibilities. NFAE appears like a chaos of activities that is difficult for coordinators to manage and depends on decisions and funding guarantees by the constantly changing national and municipal governments.
The difficulty of the NFAE implementation is determined by the problematic understanding and identification of non-formal adult education needs and how the research on the population’s learning needs is conducted. The main prerequisite for annual planning of NFAE in municipalities is to identify adult learning needs. However, because visiting researchers lack knowledge about the concept of NFAE and ability to communicate about it with the population, there is a risk that the population needs’ surveys will not be conducted fittingly enough. Other jeopardies in identifying the needs include the problem of organizing population surveys in remote rural communities in terms of accessibility (transportation) costs, as well as the constantly and rapidly changing population needs, which are difficult to perceive because they are contingent on different adult age groups and interests, varying hobbies, residential urban or rural areas, and the time of year.
Coordinators attribute the complications in implementing mass non-formal adult education (population learning) in regions to the “top-down “approach, as continuous learning plans (by the ministry) are conveyed for implementation without considering the needs of residents in a region or municipality. There are risks in organizing such courses, namely, a small number of participants in rural communities, difficulties for residents to get to activities and attracting lecturers to remote rural communities. The mass character of population’s participation in learning is illusory or “paper-based”. In reality, it is difficult to ensure the continuous mass learning of the adult population unless participants at Third Age Universities (older adults) can be invited to learning activities. Coordinators feel angry and helpless when NFAE (adult learning) plans approved by municipalities are not implemented, the learning needs of the regional population are ignored, and mass European Union-funded courses are organized, the implementation of which is of little concern to officials.
The problems of assessing the quality of non-formal adult education implementation in the country’s regions are related to each municipality’s situation or context when adult education activities are planned without funding guarantees, or minimal resources are allocated for residents’ learning, and the help of volunteer lecturers is employed. With uncertain funding for adult learning, the assessment of its quality is not formalized, and criteria are unclear. It is considered that municipalities should be empowered to make decisions on the financing, implementation and quality assessment of planned adult learning programs/activities, especially as the law on NFAE stipulates that the quality of ongoing programs/courses should be ensured.
Based on the analysis of this study’s data, the prospect of the non-formal adult education (adult lifelong learning) implementation in the country is linked to the good performance of regional coordinators and strategies to promote adult participation in learning. Coordinators are seen now and in the future as appropriately educated, full-time employees, tireless non-formal adult education enthusiasts, empowered to play their roles as generators of ideas and service providers, initiators and implementers of fairs and project activities, who plan NFAE activities and monitor their implementation, as well as seek lecturers to conduct adult learning, aspiring to belong to a group of coordinators and disseminate and share information. The role of those looking to ensure learning opportunities in communities is to organize courses with the help of volunteer lecturers from city universities, teachers from local schools and gymnasium students, as well as to arrange courses after evaluating the conditions favouring participation that are tailored to working adults and older people. The facilitator of organizational relations with Third Age Universities seeks to expand the diversity and continuity of adult learning and occupational activities, collaborate in bringing together groups of community and Third Age University participants, and attract those who want to learn and participate in joint events. The learning community aggregator seeks and brings together local NFAE service providers to meet the learning and employment needs of different population groups, encouraging and activating communities to implement beneficial educational activities. The implementer of the training quality assessment listens to the residents’ observations about the training quality directly and responds to their wishes, organizes participants’ reflections and acknowledges their opinion.
Strategies to encourage adult participation in learning that help meet adults’ educational needs, gather, retain, and expand learners’ groups and lifelong learning have been highlighted. Experiential and applied learning meet the educational needs of adults in terms of understanding the benefits and applicability in everyday life here and now (information technology, psychology, chimney care, handicrafts, jewellery-making, ceramics, painting, dance, foreign languages, entrepreneurship education classes attract large groups of participants) when the learning outcomes (output) are used as a source of livelihood and an inspiration for lifelong learning, starting a family business or other individual activities.
Creating an environment of unity and reflection in learning groups helps to feel safe and spend time meaningfully in a group of people, gaining knowledge, getting to know each other and learning from each other. Attracting lecturers, well-known authority figures and organizing discussion forums with regional/rural residents draws large groups of people. It is a tried and tested strategy when politically unengaged celebrities discuss and give lectures on various historical, cultural, or other topics. The approach of attracting young volunteers as teachers for older adults pays off in foreign language and computer literacy training and creates beautiful and informal relationships between generations. Dissemination and public enjoyment of NFAE learning outcomes bring community members closer together as learning results and products are demonstrated to local communities, friends, neighbours, and relatives and encourage other adults to join learning groups. Methods of disseminating courses-related information should be selected based on the assessment of age groups and distributed directly or in other accessible ways (online, social networks, churches, health care facilities, libraries and local newspaper).
Analysis of the qualitative research data revealed differences in understanding non-formal adult education needs and the complexity of meeting them. In some cases, non-formal adult education needs are linked to the learning wants, preferences and initiatives of local communities, which are captured through needs’ research and data collection tools. In other cases, they are constantly and rapidly changing, diverse and challenging to identify, dependent on different ages and hobbies, gender and time of year. In yet another case, non-formal adult education needs are the working population’s interests in vocational training or professional development defined and envisaged by the country’s politicians in strategic programs.
Meeting the needs of non-formal adult education for working adults and seniors is carried out as professional development, entrepreneurship education, community-uniting training, learning at Third Age Universities, educational leisure and occupational activities for informally organized population groups.
The availability of non-formal adult education for different groups of regional populations varies, depending on the political decisions regarding the financing and implementation of NFAE programs on the national, city and regional levels and the range of NFAE providers that can meet different needs of adult learners’ groups. The accessibility to NFAE, as a pre-condition to improving the well-being of the country’s population, is unequal in different regional cities and rural communities, not defined by guarantees of funding and coordination of program implementation. In some municipalities, the financing of the planned NFAE activities is not ensured, and there is no full-time position for an NFAE coordinator, or it is secondary, added to the job description of an educator in a municipality-subordinate institution. The NFAE implementation is chaotic, fragmented and transient, aimed at executing EU-funded NFAE projects “thrown down” by ministries. In some municipalities, the accessibility of NFAE services for population groups is planned to be improved through various service providers in the region (Third Age Universities, public organizations and clubs, professional academies and associations, NGOs and alike), full-time coordinators in municipalities and voluntary community initiatives in planning, preparing and implementing national and international NFAE projects.
Increasing access to non-formal adult education for various population groups is linked to empowering municipal coordinators to act as broadcasters of adult learning needs and become leaders in planning and implementing educational activities, seekers of learning opportunities in communities, organizational liaisons with Third Age Universities, facilitators of learning communities and quality assessment providers.
The relevance of assessing the quality of NFAE programs is acknowledged, but its implementation is problematic in cases where they are implemented without funding guarantees or by mobilizing minimal funding resources through community members’ voluntary efforts. Assessment of courses’ quality is related to the reflection of learners’ needs and their participation in assessing the quality of events or learning services, the usefulness and applicability of learning outcomes in real life and support for community spirit in learning. The quality of learning is recognized when different population groups (employed and seniors) actively and voluntarily participate in various courses, such as IT, foreign languages, health promotion and psychology, entrepreneurship, occupational and leisure activities, and when permanent and continuous learning and a variety of such services are reinforced.
The quality of adult learning is linked to the satisfaction of learners and strategies to encourage their voluntary continuous participation: experiential and practical applied learning; creating an environment of unity and reflection in learners’ groups; attracting lecturers and well-known personalities; attracting young volunteer lecturers to teach seniors; dissemination of NFAE courses’ results.
The implementation of non-formal adult education (population learning) in regions faces difficulties when its concepts are not clearly termed, the definition of needs is problematic, mass participation in NFAE programs is sought without regard to specific regional population needs and implementation context and when NFAE quality assessment criteria are unclear.
The study revealed that in the implementation of non-formal adult education:
The study provides recommendations for education policies at the national and municipal levels:
The study was prepared within the framework of the project “New Education Paradigm in Competitive Conditions”. The project is financed from the Programme for the European Union Funds’ Investments in 2014-2020, priority 10 “Society-oriented smart public administration” measure No. 10.1.2–ESFA–K–917 “Strengthening intolerance to corruption in society and promoting participation in public administration processes”.